IN Play: Q&A With Monica N. Harrison, CPA
The Chicago Sun-Times controller tells us why she calls herself a "non-traditional" accountant.
Monica N. Harrison, CPA wants you to know she
is a non-traditional accountant. In fact, she never
could have imagined as a 17-year-old college
student struggling to declare a major that one day
she would oversee accounting and finance at one
of the largest newspapers in the country. Fast-forward
20 years to a special day last year when
she became controller at the Chicago Sun-Times
after traveling down a very untraditional, yet
rewarding, career path and you can see why her
story is inspiring — even to her own mother, who
followed in her academic footsteps and earned an
Q: Can you tell us a little about how you got to where you are?
Well, I am a first-generation college graduate. When I first started school, I thought
I wanted to be a dermatologist; I changed my mind, declared a major in Spanish,
and then later switched to communications sciences. After graduating from the
University of Connecticut with a bachelor’s in communications sciences, I got my
first job as a directory assistance operator for AT&T. I worked there for a couple of
years before realizing it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I consider myself a nontraditional
accountant because it wasn’t until later in life that I started working in the
field and realized I was good at it.
After I passed a civil service exam, I went to work for the City of New Haven, Conn.
as a payroll clerk. Four years later, I was promoted to a position in the accounting
department monitoring community development block grants (CDBG) and state
grants. I visited not-for-profit organizations that were federal and state grant
recipients, reviewed their audits, and monitored their expenditures to ensure they
were in compliance with the grant requirements. This was my first time working in
the accounting field, and I had a supervisor who mentored me and showed me
everything I needed for my job. It was through my jobs at the City of New Haven
that I ultimately was inspired to go on to earn an MBA in finance at the University of
New Haven and a master’s in accounting at the University of Hartford.
While pursuing my master’s in accounting, I was nominated by the University of
Hartford’s Barney School of Business to participate in a one-year fellowship program
at the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB). This fellowship was a
wonderful experience because it allowed me to view and understand accounting
from a theoretical perspective. In 2016, I decided to move to Chicago to take a job
with Ernst & Young in its Financial Accounting Advisory Services practice where I
mainly helped clients with implementing the new revenue recognition standard. I
also became a member of the Illinois CPA Society. Last year, I saw the Chicago Sun-
Times was looking for a controller. I applied, and I was hired!
Q: Why was becoming a member of the Illinois CPA Society important to you?
I was a member of the Connecticut Society of CPAs before, and I think being a state
CPA society member is just a great way to meet other professionals who are in the
same industry as you. I’m also passionate about making a difference in the
accounting and finance profession. I joined the Illinois CPA Society’s Women’s
Connection Committee to contribute to making a difference for other women
professionals, and the Society’s commitment to diversity is truly in line with my
values, particularly the effort to reach out to minority students. I am also on the board
of the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), so I bring information that
I learn at the Society back to the NABA board to help us in our efforts to educate
students and help minorities get into the profession.
Q: Working for a major metropolitan newspaper isn’t exactly traditional either.
What’s the best part about it?
Number one is the fact that I am responsible for the finances of this organization. I
feel that what I do for the Chicago Sun-Times helps us maintain an important second
voice in the city.
Second, we have many celebrities and political officials come into the building for
interviews and I think that’s very exciting. Of course, the chatter in the newsroom
also gets very exciting when we’re breaking stories that no one else is.
Q: What advice do you have for others hoping to find your success?
Be open, be flexible, be patient, and be present when you are in the job you currently
have — you never know where it will lead. Passing the CPA exam was one of my
greatest victories. I didn’t pass the exams the first time that I sat for them, which was
very discouraging and frustrating, but I kept trying and, even though I didn’t have the
traditional background, I eventually passed. If I can do it, anyone can do it!